Far-right gains in French polls send shockwaves across Europe

Macron’s gamble in dissolving parliament has backfired, and the legislature will be reshaped after a surge in support for populism. But an outright majority after run-off voting looks unlikely.

Left wing supporters react as the results of the first round of French parliamentary elections are announced in Nantes, western France on June 30, 2024.
Left wing supporters react as the results of the first round of French parliamentary elections are announced in Nantes, western France on June 30, 2024.

Far-right gains in French polls send shockwaves across Europe

The results of the first round of France's snap parliamentary elections have revealed the extent of a surge in support for the far right and reshaped the political landscape in one of Europe’s most strategically important nations. This outcome will change the tone of debate and discourse in the country, potentially having serious consequences for internal social cohesion and France’s standing on the world stage.

The first round of voting on 30 June showed deepening and broader support for the National Rally party across regional and class lines. And there was a lack of momentum for the more radical wing of the left, with the New Popular Front of socialist groups underperforming.

Macron’s Ensemble party looked badly weakened, retreating even before the end of his second and final presidential term, which expires in 2027. The forces at work will be tested again next Sunday in a second round of voting. Much will depend on a range of factors, including the candidates' loyalty to their party directives, shifts in voter preferences and the formation of alliances. The outcome will have a significant bearing on how the country will be governed, and there is much still at stake, with the exact make-up of parliament to be defined in the vote ahead.

Tension and anxiety

There is also the chance that an alliance designed to keep the far right from power known as the “Republican Front” will re-emerge, where candidates from the rest of the political spectrum work together to limit far-right gains to prevent a National Rally majority in parliament—or at least to limit it.

As France anticipates the outcome of the 7 July second round, the nation is gripped by tension. There is a sense of surprise at the change already underway and anxiety at what else will happen.

And there is a developing consensus that Macron’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly—taken in the wake of far-right gains in elections for the European Parliament—was calamitous. He is seen as the architect of the current political chaos, setting up a duel between his office and a far-right legislature. And there remains the prospect of a hung parliament—one without a clear majority, which could paralyse the government.

Lost majority

Macron’s gamble has wiped out his parliamentary majority. For the first time in the history of France’s Fifth Republic, the first-round results leave the far right on the brink of power. The National Rally won over 29% of the vote on its own—a fourfold increase from 2017—and the tally, including its allies, reached 34%. These numbers are all the more significant given a high voter turnout of around 67%.

The scale of the surge looks like more than a punitive vote against the centre and the left. It feels more like a move against traditional politics and a call for an alternative form of representation and national debate.

Read more: UK, France polls could loosen traditional parties' grip on power

The far right tapped into the kind of priorities associated with populism. It used confrontational tactics against established opponents to grab attention and promote its agenda. It stoked fear of outsiders and played up to perceptions of security risks from rising immigration and asylum seekers, stoking Islamophobia as well as concern at demographic shifts. It exploited economic hardship and recent problems with inflation to appeal to working-class and middle-class voters.

For its part, the leftwing New Popular Front secured second place with 28% of the vote. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party was seen as this coalition’s weakest link after facing accusations from supporters of the traditional left that it tried to exploit the war in Gaza for electoral gain.

Macron’s Ensemble came in third with 20% of the vote, while the Republican Party's Gaullists received under 7% of the vote, the latest sign of their diminished influence. This is the share of the vote that will now be translated into parliamentary seats. Securing an absolute majority in the National Assembly requires winning 289 out of 577 seats. It appears unlikely that any of the three main blocs will achieve this threshold.

The French vote has emboldened the far-right National Rally and observers are already calling this the 'collapse of Macronism'.

The collapse of Macronism

To some observers, the vote already represents the collapse of Macronism. The National Rally leader and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been emboldened rather than diminished by the snap elections. Macron's gamble that the French electorate would reject extremism—if there was a chance of its proponents securing power—failed, with 10.5 million people voting for it, up from just 3 million in 2017.

Macron's movement sought to bridge the left-right divide in politics and capitalise on the weakening of traditional parties, which had been blamed for gridlock in the country. But the 2024 elections have brought the old distinctions back, which now look all the more stark. The president has been reduced to seeking agreements over candidate withdrawals designed to minimise the seats the far right will win in the second round. His campaign rhetoric spoke of "surrendering to extremism," "chaos," and "civil war" to revive his centrist movement, stoking allegations of alarmism.

There is a feeling that the president became convinced that he alone could convince National Rally supporters that their leaders—and especially the likely candidate for prime minister, Jordan Bardella—are unfit to govern. However, the results clearly show that the president's gamble did not pan out.

Some believe that Macron wants a far-right prime minister so that what has been termed a "combative cohabitation" between the president and Bardella will demonstrate the populists' shortcomings when in government, making a win for them in the 2027 presidential elections less likely. If this is indeed the strategy, it is very risky and follows from other gambles Macron has lost. The reality is that the National Rally—as the dominant force in parliament—could boost its credentials into the next presidential vote if Macron is proved wrong again.

This week, the precise composition of candidates across the 577 constituencies will emerge, clarifying the likely outcome in terms of the number of seats. Whatever else, the National Rally is edging closer to power in France, and that has stoked significant apprehension across Europe and globally. The elections are seen as bringing extremism into the mainstream in France, which the New York Times described as the "cradle of human rights and enlightenment."

France now faces an unprecedented political crisis that threatens its stability, reputation, and authority—both domestically and internationally. The intensity of the crisis will reveal whether Macron's gamble was disastrous or just ill-considered as the president navigates what is likely to be a series of setbacks and failures caused by his snap election during the time he was left in office.

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